Excavators: A New Generation of Excellence

Updated: Sep 17, 2019

Today’s excavator models are light-years ahead of their predecessors, resulting in greater efficiency, substantial fuel savings, and versatility.

By Construction Equipment Magazine

Key Insights for Buyers

  • New excavator models offer shorter tail-swing radius, greater digging power

  • Labor shortage drives comfort and conveniences for operators

  • Improved telematics interfaces make equipment data easier to digest and analyze

  • Guidance systems deliver project cost savings

  • New machine electronics and control systems provide more jobsite customization

Evolution of design

The evolution and refinement of the hydraulic excavator’s design has been constant, with today’s models light-years ahead of their predecessors in such areas as engine technology; hydraulic efficiency; electronic sophistication; operator convenience and safety; and hybrid technology that captures and stores energy, either electrically or hydraulically, and then uses that stored energy to assist certain machine functions, resulting in greater efficiency and substantial fuel savings.

And, of course, versatility—because most of these models have become “tool carriers” that can take on any number of job-site tasks. Hydraulic couplers, precisely controlled auxiliary-hydraulic systems, and the ever-increasing number of available excavator attachments allow these machines, in some instances, to replace a second, dedicated machine on site.

Views from the front

Trends in this major category are best described by manufacturers, who continually refine products in response to market and customer demands. We will focus on heavy excavators with operating weights in excess of 6 metric tons, or slightly more than 13,000 pounds.

Corey Rogers, marketing manager, Hyundai Construction Equipment Americas

“The most popular machine used to be in the 21-to-24-metric-ton size class across North America. Today, as infrastructure spending grows, residential and commercial construction continues to rise, and the oil and gas sector strengthens—spurred by regulatory rollbacks and recovering demand—larger machines, in the 30-to-35-metric-ton class, have taken the lead in the North American market.

“Also, we see increased customer demand for more compact-radius machines across all product sizes, and in particular, an increasing demand for larger compact-radius machines. Today, Hyundai’s largest compact-radius excavator is the HX235LCR, but we are looking at introducing larger models in the near future.

“Hyundai also sees growing demand among excavator customers for enhanced telematics and more sophisticated diagnostics capabilities, both on the machine and through remote connection. Large fleet owners and many smaller contractors are reaping a variety of benefits—including cost savings, improved maintenance, and better machine uptime—with new telematics systems.

“Lastly, machine-guidance systems and machine-control systems, both 2D and 3D, are finding quick and growing acceptance in many areas of North America. Customers are finding great project cost savings through reduced over-cut and under-cut errors, resulting in more accurate and efficient operation. Some customers who run Hyundai equipment with systems like Trimble’s Earthworks 3D machine-guidance have seen up to 40 percent reductions in job time and correlated costs.

“Other smaller trends include LED lighting packages, 360-degree camera systems like Hyundai’s AAVM [All Around View Monitoring] with object detection, and improved fuel efficiencies through hydraulic system tuning and electronic engine power optimization.”

An overall trend in the full-size excavator market is the user’s general preference for heavier, more capable machines, such as this Hyundai HX330L excavator.

Reduced tail swing coupled with advances in hydraulic efficiency make for nimble, powerful machines. This Hitachi ZX345USLC-6 uses the company’s new TRIAS system, a three-pump hydraulic system designed to speed cycle times and boost fuel efficiency.

Jonathan Spendlove, product marketing manager, excavators, Hitachi Construction Machinery—America

“We’ve seen a growing interest in reduced-tail-swing excavators, given that many of our customers work on projects in urban environments with tight working spaces. Reduced-tail-swing excavators are very effective in those types of environments, and more and more contractors seem to be turning to these models for urban work."

“We’re also seeing significant interest in grade-guidance systems. As many experienced operators begin to retire, and with a new generation entering the construction workforce, it’s not surprising that owners are looking for technological solutions to help make new employees as productive as possible.”

George Lumpkins, product marketing & developing general manager, Kobelco U.S.A

“Among the major trends Kobelco identifies in excavator technology is the rapid advancement of machine-guidance and machine-control systems, especially satellite-based, 3D, total-control systems. A greater emphasis on safety also is evolving, with multiple cameras and ‘bird’s-eye view’ systems becoming optional equipment. We’re also seeing a trend for more ‘half-size-up’ machines—those with expandable, larger, wider, and higher undercarriages, as well as more boom and arm combinations.

“And, certainly, there are growing environmental concerns—getting more production with less costs and reduced emissions. Tier V in the EU is causing design changes to cabs and engines, even if they haven’t yet been adapted in the North American or other Asian markets. The North American market, of course, increasingly uses the excavator as a tool carrier with specialized attachments. Building demolition and car dismantling with specially designed excavators seems to be expanding at a rapid pace—a market that Kobelco has been serving with long-established and purpose-built demolition machinery.”

Increased infrastructure work requires hydraulic excavators, many of them in larger sizes, such as this Kobelco SK350LC, weighing in at 82,200 pounds.

Sejong Ko, excavator product manager, Volvo Construction Equipment

“We are seeing an emphasis on creating a comfortable working environment for the operator and simplifying the controls. For example, Volvo Dig Assist is an intuitive excavator control system that allows operators to easily input job specifications and track progress along the way to ensure the job is done correctly. Operators can see the bucket in real time in relation to the target grade, depth, and slope. The goal is to prevent the operator from having to go back and do their work over again. To meet customer requirements, Volvo crawler excavators offer larger cabs, more visibility, and electronic programs to provide more information and perspectives on the job.”

Excavator cab design keeps advancing to provide an ever-more comfortable, convenient, safe working environment. An integral part of cab design is intuitive controls and displays, as evidenced by this Volvo model with the company’s Dig Assist system.

Aaron Kleingartner, marketing manager, Doosan Infracore North America

“On the design side, reduced-tail-swing models remain a popular request from customers who need a crawler excavator with a more compact footprint, a feature particularly helpful when working in a tight area, such as road and bridge construction, to minimize lane closures and reduce the risk of accidental damage from hitting nearby obstructions. Customers are looking for machine configurations that allow limited-space operation, but still offer more reach and dig depth than smaller models.

“On the opposite end of the spectrum, Doosan offers a removable counterweight for its largest crawler excavators to ease transportation on a trailer. In some areas, transporting large equipment, such as crawler excavators, is limited to predetermined seasons and times to avoid potentially damaging asphalt and concrete roadways.

“On the technology side, the increased use of telematics in excavators remains a common theme. Fleet managers increasingly are recognizing the value of monitoring machines as a means to quickly respond to service or maintenance needs, as well as to monitor for excessive idling— and perhaps make recommendations to operators for reducing fuel consumption. And manufacturers are making it easier to use telematics data. Doosan’s newest version of its online portal, for instance, is vastly improved over the old system, with a new user interface that is more intuitive, user-friendly, and features more standardized reporting.

“Of course, the ongoing labor shortage has made it more important than ever for manufacturers to ensure that operators are comfortable inside the cabs of excavators. Easy-to-operate controls, good visibility to the work area and surrounding areas—including rear-view and side-view cameras—comfortable seats, clear displays, and automatic HVAC systems all contribute to keeping operators content.”

Excavator users are asking for reduced-tail-swing models in all sizes. Doosan has two such models, a 14-ton unit (DX140LCR-5) and a 23-ton unit (DX235LCR-5). These models have the capability to set auxiliary hydraulic flow to match the attachment being used.

Marcus Barnes, product specialist, Liebherr Construction Equipment, USA

“A general trend Liebherr sees is that more contractors are asking OEMs to manufacture larger excavator classes, 75,000 pounds and more, with a shorter tail-swing radius in the interest of having a more-compact machine. The reason is that a shorter tail swing improves maneuverability and safety in confined spaces, reducing the prospect of running into something on crowded job sites. At the moment, the largest compact-radius excavator is around 75,000 to 80,000 pounds, and I expect soon that OEMs will have models larger than that.

“Liebherr also sees more OEMs using machine electronics for ease of operation—allowing operators to fine tune between working modes and to adjust the machine to their demands. Also, features that allow fine tuning the swing function and the movement of working attachments is all part of developing technology.”

Serviceability is an important aspect of excavator design. This Liebherr R 946 incorporates a new maintenance concept designed to enhance safety when working on the top of the machine, as well as redesigned access to the upper carriage.

Adam Woods, product manager, LBX, Link-Belt Excavator Co.

“I see most manufacturers listening closely to their customers’ needs through ‘voice of the customer’ surveys and responding by turning popular optional equipment into standard offerings on most machines. This includes items such as seating options, rear-view cameras, and telematics systems, the last of which is now included on all Link-Belt X4 excavators with no subscription fees. We also added an app to put the power of RemoteCARE at their fingertips.

“In addition, construction job sites are using more technology-based systems; having a grade checker in the ditch has become a thing of the past with grade-control systems. The Link-Belt 2D machine-guidance system helps improve excavator operations on projects such as trenching for underground utilities and pipelines, digging footers and basements, site prep, building roads, and mass excavation. Simply input the required target depth, cross slope, and/or main-fall slope, and the system will provide visual and audible indication to help the operator maintain the desired grade, thus eliminating under or over excavating.

“For jobs that require the last pass to perfectly match the desired target grade, LBX also offers a machine-control system that adds a 10-inch Android touch-screen display with an intuitive user interface and a machine-control joystick to engage the semi-automatic boom and bucket control.”

Grade-guidance and grade-control systems are being employed on an increasing number of excavators. This Link-Belt 210 X4 uses a machine-control joystick to engage the semi-automatic boom and bucket control.

Andrew Dargatz, product marketing manager, Case Construction Equipment

“There are a few key trends that are pushing excavator design. As with other product lines, there is a continued push to do more within existing footprints. That is driving manufacturers to make improvements in the way of hydraulics and efficient machine movement to improve performance—all while still meeting continued expectation for greater fuel efficiency.

“As with other heavy equipment product lines, Case is seeing the influence (and operator expectation) from the automotive industry affect cab and control design. The look and feel of excavator cabs are increasingly starting to mirror that of an operator’s daily driver, with greater focus on such items as ergonomics, seat functionality, side and rear cameras, improved lighting and visibility, Bluetooth functionality, and like items.

“Not only are contractors trying to get more out of existing footprints, they are also trying to do more in smaller footprints. This isn’t a new trend, per se, but it has influenced the engineering and design of one of Case’s newer, flagship excavators, the CX145D SR, which is a 32,000-pound, minimum-swing model that incorporates the Case Intelligent Hydraulic System to achieve hydraulic digging and lifting performance comparable to a similarly-sized conventional excavator.

“Customers also are looking for ways to customize these machines to more directly improve their work: for instance, choosing between steel and rubber tracks; using front dozer blades for stability; and additional auxiliary hydraulics for more robust attachment capabilities.

“Fleet managers and equipment owners also are thinking more and more about total cost of ownership and the elements that drive lifetime equipment costs up and down. To address that concern, all Case full-sized excavators feature Case ProCare, which helps make equipment owning and operating costs predictable for the first three years or 3,000 hours of operation via a planned maintenance program, factory warranty, and an advanced SiteWatch telematics subscription.

“In addition, Case has focused, where possible, on leveraging selective catalytic reduction technology in hydraulic excavators, which helps keep fuel costs down, helps keep engine (and engine-compartment) temperatures down, and ultimately represents a more efficient use of the machine.”

A design goal for many hydraulic excavator manufacturers is to reduce the machine’s overall footprint by minimizing tail swing, yet preserve the digging and lifting characteristics of a conventional-tail-swing machine. That was Case’s objective with the new 32,000-pound CX145D SR.

Michael Norman, director of marketing and sales, Gradall

“There is an increased emphasis on telematics, enabling contractors to remotely monitor, diagnose, and trouble-shoot operational issues as a means of optimizing productivity and operating efficiency, as well as ensuring long, product life for their equipment.

“Gradall continues to benefit from a growing recognition among governments and private contractors, who realize that the Gradall full-tilting, telescoping boom and attachments can provide extra jobsite versatility—handling the work of many different machines. Meanwhile, Gradall has refined its load-sensing, high-pressure hydraulics systems to deliver consistent breakout forces and cycle times comparable to, or even exceeding, conventional excavator levels.

“Gradall is perhaps best known for highway-speed and rough-terrain wheeled excavators. We have, however, introduced a new crawler model—XL 3200V Lo Pro—addressing contractor need for excavator productivity on jobs with low-overhead limitations, including top-down construction work. With a bucket attached to the boom end, the machine has an overall height of just 9 feet, 5 inches.”

Designing to meet customer requirements is at the heart of excavator product development. The Gradall XL 3200V Lo Pro, for instance, has an overall height of just 9 feet 5 inches and addresses the need for acceptable productivity on jobs with low-overhead limitations.

Justin Lantin, product marketing manager, excavators, Komatsu America

“The largest, most industry-changing technology Komatsu sees today is greater use of intelligent machine control and 3D electronic project models. Usage leads to increased grade accuracy, reduction in survey and grade crews, reduced or eliminated time re-establishing damaged grade stakes, and reduced or eliminated repair due to over-excavation.

“In addition, we see a greater use of quick couplers and hydraulic attachments. Because of this, the hydraulic excavator has become a very versatile tool, allowing customers to expand the scope of work and, ultimately, productivity, by virtue of being able to quickly change work tools.

“There is also a growing trend towards ‘bird’s-eye-view’ camera systems, because they can increase operator job site awareness and reduce machine damage. Both the new Komatsu PC238USLC-11 and the HB365LC-3 [a hybrid model] are now offered with the Komvision 360-degree camera system, which uses multiple cameras, positioned around the machine.”

As excavator design advances, the industry is seeing hybrid models, such as the Komatsu HB365LC-3.

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